"Recommended Components"—the St. Hubbins' Syndrome! Page 3

In the 1950s, psychologists learned just how powerful consensus can be. One famous experiment speaks for itself. Imagine that you've been recruited to participate in a study of visual perception. Your neighbor, for example, is a psychologist studying how people see things; she asks you to come to her lab, look at a few charts, and answer a few questions. There will be a handful of other subjects involved, she explains, and the whole thing will take 25 minutes. No big deal.

So you find yourself and seven or eight strangers seated around a conference table, at the end of which are two large, clearly visible charts. One has a square on it and the other has three shapes—a circle, a square, and a triangle labeled "1," "2," and "3," respectively. The experimenter asks you to decide on your own which of the three figures is the same as the one in the first chart. She asks each of the subjects in turn to answer "1," "2," or "3." (You're seated next to last—that's important.) As they respond, she records their answers in a notebook.

The questions are easy. Everyone is getting them right and everyone appears to have pretty good vision. After four or five of these simple trials, however, the tests are slightly different. This time, the charts display vertical lines. On the first chart, the line is about 8" long. On the second, there are three lines, labeled (again) "1," "2," and "3," that are about 6", 8", and 10" long, respectively. Which line, you are asked, is the same length as the single line? It's obvious that the answer is line 2. But the first guy answers "1," the second guy answers "1," the third guy answers "1," the fourth guy answers "1," and so on. Now it's your turn.

What do you say? No one is giggling or otherwise letting on that something's up; no one is squinting, leaning forward, or having any trouble seeing the lines. Everyone is as bored and as matter-of-fact as they were before. These people, you would likely conclude, honestly believe that the correct answer is "1"—but it's not.

Truth is, these strangers are not strangers to each other, only to you. You are the real subject of the experiment. They are confederates, organized and coached in advance by the psychologist to answer some of the questions incorrectly. In some trials (like this one) they would answer incorrectly and uniformly. They would create, that is, the illusion of a strong (and false) consensus view. In other trials, one or two of them would answer correctly and thereby dilute the consensus to varying degrees. The result was surprising: Many people were quick to go along with the majority, despite the evidence of their senses. Three-quarters of the 123 subjects in this study answered incorrectly at least once in the course of the experiment. Presumably, on these occasions, they either trusted other peoples' eyes better than their own, or else they simply lied. Only one quarter of them answered correctly all the time, regardless of how the rest of the "subjects" answered.

What do these results mean? The author of this study believed that most of us fear being outsiders, oddballs, or dissenters in social situations. As a result, we strive to avoid appearing like one—even if we have to lie to do it. I doubt that's all there is to the story, but the experiment gives one plausible reason why "Recommended Components" is so powerful: if it represents the consensus view, and if most audiophiles think the Musical Ecstasy is the preamp to beat, then your purchase of the Sonic Nirvana makes you a dissident, an oddball, or some sort of loner on the audiophile cityscape. ("Brother, can you spare an interconnect?"). Sitting atop your equipment rack, the Sonic Nirvana would be like a neon sign blinking the awful, embarrassing truth out onto the dark, rainy streets: "George could have bought the world's best preamp, but he didn't—he bought this. What a loser!"

If I'm right, the irony is pretty thick. High-end audio is all about dissent from the mainstream. As a whole, we disagree with most audio engineers that "bits is bits"; we disagree with the music industry that digital audio has been a huge improvement over analog; and we resolutely deny that everything one needs to know about a component is captured by a handful of bench measurements. This list could go on. Our strange beliefs, moreover, don't go unnoticed. Most lo-fi audio buffs think we're either a bunch of technophobes ("LPs? Why do you want LPs?") or some sort of pseudoscientific cult with wacky ideas about how cables and stands and tweaks affect a system's sound. As Al Fasoldt so gracefully implies every time his column, "The Common Sense Audiophile," appears in Fanfare, the wider world of audio thinks that we're missing something upstairs. So unless you've recently converted to Stereo Review, you're already immune to St. Hubbins' Syndrome. So what if the Musical Ecstasy is rated Class A? If your choice sounded better when you auditioned it, it probably still does.

Doctor Fine's picture

I have worked and sold high end equipment back to the beginning when tube Macs ruled the "Mac Clinic" world.  Probably owned hundreds of components and sold literally thousands of others to customers.

So I wanted a new pair of mid-sized monitor accurate box speakers so that I could use them in different applications.  Perhaps add sealed box mid-bass and some Velodyne 15 subs in stereo to flesh them out.  Other times take them on the road as true monitors.  In general just give them a good thrashing and NEVER question if it was THEM or the ROOM that was the problem.  It would all ways be the ROOM as they would be perfect.

Trouble is I had never owned of heard a medium size box speaker that was considered quite that cup of tea.  But the reviewers had.  EVERYONE I mean EVERYONE in the hi-fi business stated at one time or another that Harbeth monitors were the real deal and boringly wonderful and easy to live with and accurate and musical and blah blah blah.

So never having heard them I bought a pair of Monitor 30s for $4000.

The point of the story is that by not even trying to guess I merely dialed in the requirements and went looking for a solid consensus.  And once having found that consensus I simply plunked down my dough and moved on.

Oh by the way they are doing everything I wanted.  Absolutely ZERO interest in changing for anything i have heard yet.  They work well as a centerpiece in a $30,000 home stereo playback system.  They work in a mastering situation.  They work well alone in small setups.  They are perfect.

I bet I never would have found them by "testing" stuff.  True story.